Improving Your Emotional Intelligence in Healthcare

Jun 5, 2018
8 min read

There are some people who just seems to get along with everyone - they have some sort of “x-factor” that draws people to them. How can we, as health care professionals, leverage this “x-factor,” and how can we relate it to patient care?

Will it change the way we practice?

One possible explanation of this intangible factor is having a high level of emotional intelligence, or recognizing one’s own emotions and the emotions of others to guide their own thinking and behavior, as well as managing these emotions to pursue specific goals.

People with high emotional intelligence are said to have better physical and mental health, job performance, and leadership skills. One could argue that it is imperative for medical professionals to have excellent emotional intelligence to improve patient outcomes, patient adherence, and motivate our patients to work toward better overall health.

Between high copays, hectic schedules, and the general depersonalization of health care, it’s crucial that we can quickly and efficiently recognize emotions in our patients and ourselves and use them to leverage their success.

Consumers are getting savvier, there are more choices available, and people are generally willing to pay for quality service. The current status of healthcare seems starkly divided into factory like settings where the sole purpose is to see as many patients as possible, and settings where time between practitioners and patients is valued and the patient feels heard.

Most likely, you are already pretty great at reading people and adapting your own emotions and feelings to better serve the consumers. Medical professionals as a group are some of the most skilled at emotional intelligence. Some other occupations that demonstrate a great grasp on emotional intelligence are teachers, coaches, tour guides, and restaurant servers. The skills needed to “read the room” are skills that should be developed just as much as practical skills.

Improving Your Emotional Intelligence in 10 Steps

Know the “Big Five” of emotional intelligence. The five tenets of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, social skill, empathy, and motivation. Knowing how we can leverage these to improve our interactions with our patients is helpful to have in the back of our minds and is an easy template to refer to when things get more complicated.

Be a good active listener.

Let’s face it - most health care providers are awesome at multitasking. We can take a full history while signing off on a document while noticing our next patient in the waiting room. From the patient’s perspective, it can be frustrating to see their doctor, therapist, or nurse paying more attention to the computer screen than to the patient’s information. By taking a few seconds to make eye contact, repeat the patient’s answers back to them, and face the patient, we are able to convey that we are actively listening.

Be an expert at recognizing emotions - in yourself and in others.

People who are highly emotionally intelligent are able to organize their emotions into many different categories. They can tell anger from anxiety or fear; fatigue from depression or sadness. This helps determine the appropriate response to a certain emotion. Patients are often afraid and act defensively, but taking a few seconds to determine if the patient is coming from a place of fear or of legitimate anger can help de-escalate the situation. We often are confronted with patients with seemingly bad attitudes, only to later find out that they are scared because perhaps they lost a family member to the same medical condition. It’s important to respond appropriately to avoid making the situation worse.

Practice empathy.

We encounter people from all walks of life, and as healthcare professionals, we often know what is best for the patient at functional and practical levels. But it is crucial that we do not bully our patients. For example, if a patient is holding on to their last shreds of independence after losing their spouse and is told they need to go to a nursing home, a little bit of empathy can go a long way into explaining the situation to the patient and making the transition easier on him or her and on their family.

Think positively and be present.

“My thoughts create the world” is a phase that should be echoing around our minds. With a particularly difficulty or slow patient, it’s easy to let the mind wander to an errand list or to the weather outside, or to mentally making a task list for the next patient. By not being present, we do our patients a disservice. Taking the extra effort to focus on the task at hand can let our patients know that we are really there with them, which makes their visit more enjoyable and increases the likelihood that they will return.

Be observant and curious.

Asking a patient about their grandchildren or favorite sports team is more than just small talk. Emotionally intelligent people tend to be curious about those around them. By the same token, it’s important to know which patients do not want to engage in conversation and to back off appropriately. By being observant and picking up on the patient’s cues, you will help foster a trusting patient-provider relationship.

Be assertive.

The harder it is for you to say no, the more prone you are to stress, burnout, and depression. Saying no is a challenge for many people. Emotionally intelligent people know the value of that simple word and try to avoid using phrases like, “I’m not sure.” This allows patients to respect your decisions, as they see you are confident, which helps them with their self-confidence and self-efficacy in achieving their goals and continuing to adhere to an established plan of care.

Go with the flow.

We’ve all had it happen - your 9:00 appointment arrives at 7:30 and you’ve barely had enough time to drink your coffee before you’re grabbing a chart and jumping into the day with both feet. Or, perhaps your patient with a rotator cuff injury shows up with a broken ankle and needs to learn to use an assistive device. It’s frequent in our field that we have to be adaptable to any changes in our schedule. If we have a hard time rolling with the punches, our anxiety can increase and can be detected by patients, which can often increase their own level of apprehension or anxiety.

Practice self-reflection.

Knowing what we are good at -- and bad at -- are introspective skills that we can use at any moment to help create an environment for ourselves that works in our favor. It’s also a good practice to reflect on mistakes and use them to grow without dwelling too much on them. This helps us to avoid high-stress situations by knowing how we are best equipped to get through them. It’s also good not to be a perfectionist. Do your job well, but don’t let fear of failure prevent you from reaching your professional goals.

Don’t underestimate the power of body language.

Facial expressions, body movements, eye contact, and gestures are all helpful ways to demonstrate emotional intelligence to make a patient feel comfortable. There are many things unsaid in the space we leave between ourselves and the patient, the eye contact we offer and receive, and the strength of a handshake we give. By being aware of our body language, we invite a patient to feel at ease in our presence.

At the end of the day, the best thing to do is to respect our patients and treat them with dignity.

We should always be listening to their concerns and responding appropriately. Honesty will help to build a great patient-provider relationship and will facilitate patient adherence and likely will improve patient outcomes.

A few other ways to maximize success with honing your emotional intelligence skills is to get enough sleep, avoid too much caffeine, and disconnect from technology. These can help you avoid excessive stress and allow you to focus on introspection.

To test your ability to recognize different facial expressions and the emotions that they convey, try the following exercise from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkley.


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